Archive for the ‘Christmas 1 A’ Category

Violent Night, Holy Night!

Sunday, December 26th, 2010

1st Sunday after Christmas A, December 26, 2010
Rev. Brian Henderson—Pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, San Diego, CA
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Picture shows a woman holding her child hiding from Herod's soldiers.


I found our gospel lesson this morning a hard message to preach.  It’s hard to hear a message that included the slaughter of “innocent” babies; that’s not the message that most of us want to hear the first Sunday after Christmas message, right?  Haven’t we all been taught that Christmas is a time of happiness?  So why would I want to preach about violence and death?  Well, because it is in the Bible!  And God’s Word is always relevant and timely.  In this reading from Matthew, we are shown sin at its ugliest, but it is also shows us an important piece of prophecy that was fulfilled.  In our gospel lesson God wants us to learn about His special providence or care, which accomplishes His will, even when bad, violent and evil things happen.  In short, God wants us to know that even when bad things happen, He is still in control!

 As a way of introduction, please allow me a few words about the history behind how the church has dealt with this text.  Somewhere around the middle of the 4th century, the church observed this Sunday and this text as “The Feast of the Innocents.”  It was a big deal for the early church because they felt that it was the very first evidence of martyrdom for Christ.  During this time period, the church was soaked with the blood of Christians who died to proclaim the truth of the gospel, and they used this day to honor those who had given so much.  The liturgical setting was often the color purple, which was usually reserved for the season of Lent.  In the worship service it was a day to emphasize repentance and personal examination.  Let me share with you a sample prayer that I found that I feel best describes the over all mindset of the early church: “O God, whose praise the martyred innocents did this day proclaim, not by speaking but by dying: Destroy in us all the malice of sinfulness, that our lives may also proclaim thy faith, which our tongues profess.  Through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.”

Let me give you a few questions to consider before I address our text:  Did people die yesterday on Christmas?  Were there homeless people Christmas Eve?  Do you think that every Christian experienced a problem free Christmas?  Do you think that there might even be some of your brothers and sisters in the Lord here today that did not have a MERRY and WONDERFUL Christmas?  If you answered yes to anyone of these questions then you’ve discovered like me that God’s Word for us today is very timely and appropriate for us to consider, but in order for us to hear God speak, we must understand HOW He spoke in the past.  So let’s examine the world as it was in today’s Gospel.

I. From Joseph and Mary’s perspective the last 9 months had been hectic, confusing, joyful, exciting, and worrisome!  Angels, relatives, strangers, farm animals and innkeepers had all been a crazy part of God’s prophecy that they saw fulfilled right before their eyes.  But there still remained many unanswered questions about this miraculous baby boy that God had placed in their care.  To put it simply, Joseph and Mary were going full speed ahead into a mystery that somehow declared that this baby is God in human flesh, Immanuel!  What before seemed like a dream had now become very real as the angel instructed Joseph to “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until (God told them to leave, because) Herod (was) about to search for the child, to destroy him.” [Matt. 2:13] Talk about a stressful way to cap off the first Christmas!

 Now let’s look at the first Christmas from King Herod’s perspective.  From Herod’s point of view, God’s Word about the Messiah presented a direct challenge to his pride and to his precarious reign as the King of Palestine.  Throughout His reign as king he ruthlessly destroyed anyone he thought was a direct threat to his throne, including dozens of his blood relatives and even his own children.  History records that Herod, while on his death bed, even had his son Antipater decapitated as a final act of revenge. 

Now back to our Gospel lesson which is about one of Herod’s many diabolical plots that was carried through, well …sort of.  You see, when Herod learned that the Magi (The Wise Men) were somehow warned of his plot to kill the Messiah, and had refused to return to him and reveal the location of the baby that would be “King of the Jews,” true to form, he became furious, and ordered that all the baby boys two years old and younger must be slaughtered, thus ensuring that the Messiah would be killed as well.  What a pathetic person Herod was to think that He could thwart the will of God and prevent the prophecies from being fulfilled!  Think of the horrible sounds that came from Bethlehem that day when Herod’s soldiers carried out his hideous plan. I shudder to think of the painful screams of the infants and the horror-filled cries of their parents.  As a Father I cannot bear to think about this any further and neither could St. Matthew, so we will just leave it as he does.  But what is amazing is that Herod’s evil plan somehow became the fulfillment of prophecy, as St. Matthew tells us: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning.  Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”

Now, since we’re speaking about background, let me provide just a little more insight into this quote that actually comes from Jeremiah 31:15.  The prophet Jeremiah was speaking about the Exile of the Jews from Judah to Babylon after they were conquered.  Ramah was a staging point about 5 miles outside of Jerusalem, which the Babylonians used as a sort of Internment camp.  It was here where the strongest, fairest and brightest like Daniel the prophet, were singled out, marked, separated from their families and sent to Babylon.  Rachel who weeps for her children, was the sister of Leah and she was Jacob’s favorite wife.  She represents all of the Jewish mothers who wept for their children when they were deported to Babylon, but she also represents all those who would weep when the prophecy of the “slaughter of the innocents” is fulfilled.

 Do you find this depressing?  I did too, until I realized that this incident would cause yet another prophecy about Jesus to be fulfilled.  You see, when the angel warned Joseph in his dream to flee Herod’s evil plan and run to Egypt, one of God’s final prophecies about the God-child, Jesus the Messiah would be fulfilled.  It was an obscure Messianic prophecy that is found in the book of Hosea that speaks of the Messiah like this: “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” Well, let’s close our background study and take this sacred recording of history and let God speak to us this morning. 

II. Within our Gospel lesson, God’s Word provides us with three things: FAITH, OBEDIENCE, and the gift of ETERNAL LIFE.

Now, in regards to faith, God’s Word is always His chief means of Grace.  A means of grace is simply the way in which God chooses to give us saving faith, that is the ability to believe that He has forgiven all of our sin. Mary received this gift through God’s Word when the angel came and spoke to her regarding the child that she was to give birth to.  Listen: “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” [Luke 1]  And Joseph was visited too and given God’s Word of faith when the angel said to him, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” [Matt. 1]. 

Friends, that same Living Word of God that Joseph and Mary heard is Who speaks to us today.  It is the Word that assures you that, “(Jesus) The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost (even you).”  This little baby who was born to die for the sins of the world, surely died also for those little ones that Herod slaughtered.  We can rest knowing that God had preordained from the beginning that these little ones that died in Christ’s place, would foreshadow the mission of our baby Savior who would latter do an even greater thing by dying for them and us, and giving us eternal life.  Know this for certain, all little children are precious to our Savior.  Do you recall that  later as an adult, Jesus would gather the little children to Himself; He laid hands on them, and blessed them.  He told His apostles that unless they entered the kingdom of God as like a little child they could not get in!   

Even today, Jesus is still gathering little children to Himself in Holy Baptism.  It is through His Word which comes with water that the sins of our little ones are washed away.  Through His Word, faith is given and that faith clings to the promise of Christ; the promise which states that they are the redeemed possession of the Triune God.  That is why we bring our little ones to Baptism and faithfully teach them the mysteries and the truths of the holy Christian Faith.  It is faith that knows that Jesus shed his blood for the infant boys of Bethlehem just as He did it for you!

Through this faith God grants us strength to follow where he leads, and to endure all of the hardships that life brings.  We call this strength to follow God “obedience”.  Those little babies were privileged to never know the life- long pain or suffering and violence, disappointment, sickness or death.  But Joseph knew what it meant to sacrifice.   Joseph was obedient to the call of God to flee Bethlehem.  In the middle of the night, he obediently gathered Marry and child and fled to a foreign land.  But faith, given through the promises of God’s Word provided him with the strength to obediently follow where ever God would lead.  Mary also knew how to be obedient.  She also followed God’s will in raising her son, even though she knew that Jesus, her child was born to suffer and die for her sins and the sins of the world.  Joseph and Mary knew what hardship was and so did our dear Savior.  Scripture tells us that Jesus was a man acquainted with sorrow.  Jesus Himself spoke of this truth in the garden of Gethsemane, before His death, when He said, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.”  But faith provides obedience to follow where God leads and believe that all things will work together for good, no matter what the cost.  How can we remain obedient even in the middle of suffering and death?  Well if it were up to us we couldn’t, but through the on-going work of God’s Holy Spirit, we can look to His Word and follow Jesus journey along the road of life that led to the cross.  We can obediently come to this communion rail and receive the bread and wine and not question how it could possibly be His body and blood; it is simply enough that our Lord said that it is, and that through this eating and drinking He gives us forgiveness of sins and the strength to follow Him!  We can remember that as he suffered and died, so must we, but as He rose again from the dead so shall we also!   

Yes friends, life is a struggle, but scripture promises that those who finish their course, who run the race to its end will be rewarded with an eternal life that will never again know pain, fear, sickness or death again.  The short race of those babies in Bethlehem ended when God called them home and rewarded them with eternal life.  When the time comes for God to call us as well, we will say, along with all of the other saints who have gone before us “Where O death is your sting, where of grave is your victory.”   

 Dear friends, God had a plan for Joseph and Mary.  He had a plan for the innocents, and he has a plan for you too.  I can’t tell you exactly what His plan for you is, but I can tell you this much, where ever He leads you and where ever you go, even if in the past you have sinfully walked away from where He was leading you, “He will never leave or forsake you,” because He is Emmanuel, God with Us, even unto the very end.

 Well before we close our message this morning, there is one final prophecy that I need to remind you of that was also fulfilled.  Now, it’s a small one, but without it coming true, Jesus could not have been declared the Messiah.  What is that last prophecy?  It’s this:  “(The Messiah) will be called a Nazarene.”  How was it fulfilled?  Well, Joseph was also warned by God in another dream  “(That another evil ruler named) Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod,” so to protect God’s Son, Joseph was told to take up residence in “the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth.” So the final piece of prophecy is fulfilled! 

CONCLUSION: Listen friends, isn’t it a comfort to know that God is always in control of things that are happening in our lives?  Isn’t it encouraging to know that the very same voice that spoke through the prophets is STILL calling out to you as well!  He is calling you to remember when your love for him was new and fresh; when you would gladly follow where ever He would lead.  Follow Him now; pick up His Word and learn from Him who is gentle and meek.  Remember His promises of old that were given to you at your Baptism.  Remember that what God’s Word declared was done for you at your Baptism can never be undone.  God has saved you for Christ sake.  I pray that you will continue to claim His promise of salvation and not doubt, but only believe that he who was faithful to begin a good work in you will complete it! [Philp. 1]  I ask this in Jesus name… AMEN!